He Surprised the Heck Out of Us
My oldest son Leon was born on Easter Sunday, six and a half weeks premature. This information largely sums up my son: he surprised the heck out of his whole family that day, and he has been surprising us ever since. Every milestone met, every word spoken, every step taken, every laugh, smile, outburst — Leon has done it with his own style, an enigmatic explosion of laid back, high maintenance, experience-seeking energy.
We knew from the moment he was born that he was extraordinary (even though we are a little biased), but it took us years to learn that many of Leon’s struggles stem from ADHD. It took us even longer to understand that there are ways to help him thrive and use his exemplary brain in the most advantageous way to him.
The Beginning of Our Struggles
Our struggles with Leon began fairly early on. While he was in pre-k 3 and pre-k 4, his teachers often reported behavior problems to us daily, with exasperated voices and tired faces.
“He just doesn’t listen.”
“We notice he’s got a lot of energy.”
“He did okay, but we just had some trouble following directions.”
We hoped that more classroom structure would help him, and we looked forward to pre-k 5, which was run similarly to a kindergarten classroom. Leon had the most kind and patient teacher, which made the amount of trouble he had in class even more disheartening.
“He’s so smart, but he just will not follow directions… He has a great personality, but sometimes he just talks too much…He just…He just…He just…”
There always seemed to be a problem, but it always existed right outside of our grasp.
Pre-K 5 also introduced us to the dreaded behavior clip chart. We lived for the days when Leon was on green, and we dreaded the days when Leon was on red. Unfortunately, red days were the norm, and no incentive or consequence seemed to tip the scale in favor of green.
We were all at our wits end, and by the end of his time in pre-k, we had stopped asking about behavior and his teacher had stopped telling us about it. As we coasted into the summer, we prayed for a miracle to come in the fall.
While his behavior at school was a constant worry, our experience with him at home and socially was equally difficult. We began to calculate risk vs reward for every family gathering and social function. The risk went up in direct proportion to how much structure was required. We preplanned exit strategies, and my husband and I became adept at reading one another’s eyes for the telltale signs that we needed to make an early exit.
There were certain people we knew we could visit who would handle Leon and us with compassion and kindness, and we knew the places we needed to avoid at all costs. Even “family friendly” events often required us to get child care because it was easier and more pleasant for everyone involved. The guiding principle for every family decision revolved around our ability to navigate the unique dynamics that our son brought into the equation.
Our Struggles Continue
And then Leon entered kindergarten. We knew that kindergarten would be a challenge simply because of the experiences we had already had in pre-k. However, we were not ready for the amount of discipline referrals and parent conferences that we experienced. By the second full day of school, I was summoned to Leon’s teacher’s classroom after school for a conference, and it just went downhill from there.
Conference after conference: he wouldn’t listen or pay attention. He couldn’t follow directions. He acted out in class and had trouble regulating his emotions. He played when he wasn’t supposed to and distracted his classmates. The list was extensive, and it was only September.
I remember at Open House, we met his teacher and all seemed to go fairly well. It was the typical in and out situation, and as we left her room, Leon said he wanted us to see his extracurricular classrooms and teachers.
As we made the rounds, Leon went into one of the “special” classes, and I introduced myself to the teacher. And then she responded with, “Oh, Leon…” and then smirked. I smiled hesitantly back at her, unsure of the implications.
Then she made a statement that cut me to my core:
“He just can’t control himself, can he?”
I’m not sure how I ultimately responded. I’m sure I smiled, shook my head, and uttered something noncommittal like, “yeah, that’s our boy.” But inside my spirit plummeted to an all-time low.
This teacher had summed up my son in seven little words that hung like a weight around my heart.
That was the narrative she shared with me about him, and in my mind, that became the narrative that everyone had about him. He was the kid who couldn’t control himself, and in the days, weeks, and months afterwards, I fought against that narrative in my own mind and could see the ripple effects of that description spreading throughout his life. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know where to turn.
What Do We Do Next?
To say that we felt like terrible, ill-equipped, and inadequate parents would be a gross understatement. We lived in a state of constant anxiety and defeat, and the worst part was that we couldn’t see a clear way out. Well-meaning, but misguided people and well-intentioned, but tone deaf advice abounded.
“He just needs boundaries…”
“Consistency is key…”
“The things that make him difficult to parent now will make him a really successful adult one day.”
All true statements, but all equally unhelpful against the backdrop of our rigidly consistent, fortress-level boundaries in place for our son who was very much still a child. It felt like we had done all of the things, and we were not any closer to setting our son up for success.
One day around this time, I found myself in the office of one of my coworkers. I was there for work, but she casually asked how my son was doing in school. I guess the anxiety and despair registered on my face because before I could get out the obligatory “he’s doing great,” she had swept me into a chair and insisted I share my story.
As we talked, she began to share similar stories with me about her children. I cannot fully express how powerful it was to hear her stories and to realize that I was not alone; we were not the only family who had this struggle. She shared that they had sought help from her son’s pediatrician (who is also my son’s pediatrician). Now that was advice I hadn’t gotten before! Rather than leaving me to spin my wheels in the ditch, she directed me to the onramp of a road that we didn’t know we could take.
I reached out to Leon’s pediatrician that day, and we set up a consultation. After talking with her about the struggles he’d experienced and the consequences of those struggles (office referrals and discussions of suspension), she gave us the screening paperwork for ADHD.
My husband and I filled it out together, and we asked Leon’s teacher to do so as well. After we sent the results to his pediatrician, she told us that Leon definitely met the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis. We were very resistant to medication, and our pediatrician suggested we seek out other treatment options and an additional consultation with a child behavioral therapist. With more hope and confidence than we’d had in a long time, we set up the initial appointment that led us one step closer to peace and happiness for our family.
After a couple of weeks, my husband and I sat stiffly on the overstuffed couch in the therapist’s small office. She smiled at us kindly, sharing a look that was both knowing and sympathetic. Despite the tears that were building up momentum behind my eyes, I couldn’t help but smile back.
For a brief moment, our doctor’s face was obscured by my son’s black and orange tennis shoe, as he extended his legs fully up into the air while lying on his back in the middle of the office floor. Then her face came back into view as Leon collapsed his legs onto his stomach and rolled around like a dog scratching its back. She glanced down quickly at Leon who smiled up at her and giggled, and then she met my eyes.
“I’m not telling you how you have to parent your kid, but I feel pretty safe in saying that medication is in his future. And I think he could definitely benefit from it.”
I took a deep breath, traded glances with my husband, and then looked back at our doctor.
We really want to pursue medication only as a last resort.
We inquired if there were other options we could try first. The doctor assured us they could definitely do some work with our son that might help, but he was a pretty textbook case of ADHD.
Then, as if to punctuate her words, Leon re-extended his legs into the air and did a quick scissor kick.
After we talked with her more about the pros and cons of trying Leon on medication, I could feel the tension releasing and the relief building inside of me. But I had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that we were taking the easy way out. That we were just running to medicate him because we were tired of fighting. That we were tapping out. I could feel the fear rising up, and then our doctor said something that made it all click.
“If he had asthma, you wouldn’t hesitate to give him an inhaler to help him breathe. Really, this is no different. This medicine can help his brain function in a way that will make his quality of life better.”
And there it was. I breathed out what seemed like two years of tension and anxiety, and I knew that we were finally on the right path for our boy.
Now, Leon takes medication to help him manage his ADHD symptoms, and he is thriving in school, at home, and in social situations. My mom explained the effects really well:
“It’s like he has the opportunity to put all of his best characteristics on display. He’s still him, but he’s the best him.”
Since his diagnosis, we have learned so much about ADHD and its effects on the executive function of the brain. We’ve learned tricks and strategies that have helped not just Leon but everyone in our family to be more prepared for the challenges each day brings. We’ve had the chance to grow together as a family, and we’ve become closer and better because of this journey.
I have no doubt that we have many more challenges and struggles on the road ahead of us, but I am grateful that Leon has access to the tools and support he needs to have his best chance at success.
The stigmas surrounding ADHD and other neurodivergent diagnoses are alive and well in 2021. And it seems like everyone has an opinion, especially about using medication as a treatment option. Ironically, this has been one of the loneliest roads that I have travelled. All of the opinions in the world did little to make me feel less isolated or more adequate at parenting my son. However, on our journey, the moments of greatest breakthrough came to us from the kindness, compassion, and openness of others.
When we were able to see ourselves in the stories of friends, we felt stronger.
When our friends and family shared their kind and true and generous narratives about our son, we felt uplifted. And when those who had already made it onto the lifeboat threw out a line to us, we felt rescued.